Dieting for the Unconscious

New Year is the time for dieting but what is the best way to feed the creative mind?  A diet of high-energy, fast entertainment and hectic socialising is all very well for a short time and a change is as good as a feast, but very soon it will be time to return to a more sensible routine. If, by chance, you have the desire and the opportunity to engage in creative work at the beginning of this new year then having a quiet, disciplined approach and withdrawing from the din of people and the distractions of (social) media will probably help to accomplish what you set out to do.

This is all very well, but many would argue that the source of creative ideas and solutions is not the willed, conscious, disciplined mind but somewhere else entirely: the unconscious.  The rational, intellectual and analytic part of the brain is not the origin of real sparks of inspiration.  Instead, there seems to be another “place” or level which contains the really good stuff.  Ideas emerge unbidden.  They come as a surprise and often at inconvenient times, such as when you are working on another project entirely.  Then, as in Stephen King’s wonderful analogy of the story idea as a fossil that must be dug out of the ground without damaging it, the trick is to interfere as little as possible with the image, character or entire plot that has been apparently gifted out of nowhere.  You don’t have to be a writer or an artist to recognise this: it’s the stroke of genius that comes out of the blue, the solution to the problem you’ve been chewing away at for days.

Dorothea Brande, in Becoming a Writer, is most insistent that deliberate intention is wanted only in the planning and editing stages of writing.  “The conscious mind,” she writes, “is meddlesome, opinionated and arrogant”.  Brande argues that the intellect will supply hackneyed material such as stereotypes or over-literary characters if allowed sway during the writing process.  So her ideal model of composition is one in which the unconscious and conscious take turns to be in the ascendant: the unconscious writes, then the conscious edits.  “Hitch your unconscious mind to your writing arm,” she advises.

This, however, is a step too far for many people, writers included.  Heather Leach, in The Road to Somewhere, is wary and sceptical of writers claiming to be in touch with the semi-mystical realms of dream and the unconscious and she finds the idea of the creative process as not fully conscious as “nerve-racking”.  “If something is not in your control,” she says, “how do you develop or improve it?”

I am persuaded, by experience rather than the arguments of Sigmund Freud and others like him, that there is a higher, more organised wisdom beyond my selfish, distracted and limited ego and there have been moments when some other intelligence has taken over from me during composition.  There’s also the very mysterious phenomenon of going back to freewriting and not recognising it as your own work, even though you know you did indeed write it.  But I have no idea, apart from spending time in silence and solitude, of how to induce or invite this other, better source of art to provide me with material.

As Leach continues to puzzle over the apparent unwieldiness of the unconscious, she comes up with yet more questions:  “how does the unconscious learn and develop?” she asks, and then: “what does it eat and how can we feed it?”

Well, even if I am unsure about the truth or otherwise of the unconscious as a player in creative work, I can recognise a good writing prompt when I see it!  My students and I had a great session writing on the topic of “What does the unconscious eat and how can we feed it?”

Why not try it yourself?  Sit down for ten minutes and banish all logic and sense.  Resolve to waste time and paper and freewrite on what your unconscious really needs and wants to be fed.  Also, attempting such a nonsensical task might push that meddlesome intellect out of the way for a while.

At this time of year especially, it’s possible that you’ve been eating all the wrong things, and I’m not just talking about all those chocolates and cakes that have been bad for your waistline.  If you can figure out the right regime, why not put yourself on a diet for your unconscious this new year and see how much more creative you can be.

It’s time for Surrealist Games!

When people get together for Christmas or other festive events they often play games.  There’s Charades, especially for when a few drinks have been taken, or board games (often ending in family arguments).

Then there’s the one where you have a post-it note with a name stuck to your forehead and you have to guess who you “are” (and which led a dear friend of ours to declare he would never come to our house again if he was going to be made to play games, which was duly noted).

For the Surrealists, games were a very serious business, providing the conditions for spontaneous creativity and the element of revealing self-exposure, which might throw up new truths.  The fun, pleasure, playfulness and random co-incidence of games were at the heart of what the Surrealists were trying to do: overturn normal society and liberate the imagination.

Everyone knows that play is part of art-making, and the fun that the artist or writer has in creating art can seem a little suspicious in our economically-driven, status-obsessed world.  It was precisely the subversive aspect of games that the Surrealists liked so much.  To play is to abandon the adult world, pleasure is the aim and there is no material reward guaranteed.  Playing means ignoring what is serious, or urgent, or economically productive, and it is a great leveller.  It conquers time, too, because a game ends only when the players are ready to stop, meaning that normal life or work is suspended.

Artists play with their materials: paint, colour, line, brush, knife, wood or stone.  Writers play with stories, words, and the sound of words.  To be creative is to play; it is to work at playing in the sense of doing on purpose, and in a sustained way, what the child (if happy, healthy, etc) does spontaneously when alone or with others.

In the creative writing course I ran for the now defunct Lifelong Learning at Bangor University we played a lot of Surrealist games and the sense of freedom and permissiveness created a mood and space in which laughter and creativity were blended together.  The group were brought together by the games played in teams and the risks that were required in terms of individual contributions.  Unfortunately when I tried to induce the full-time students to play games in class they seemed to be, at 19 or 20, unwilling to throw off the dignity of adulthood (unlike my “mature” students who were game for anything!).

Most of the games played by Surrealists, from the days of the Paris group in the 1920s to the very recent Chicago group were never recorded, but much survives in various publications and manuscripts.  One of my most treasured possessions is “Surrealist Games” by Alistair Brotchie: a wonderful box of delights which contains a book, board game, Surrealist dictionary and what seems to be an iron-on transfer.  In it, after an excellent introduction by Mel Gooding, are instructions and examples of Surrealist games grouped together under headings such as “Language Games,” “Visual Techniques” and “Re-Inventing the World”.

The best-known collective game is The Exquisite Corpse which grew out of the game Consequences.  On a piece of paper, write “a” or “the” and an adjective (such as “exquisite”) then turn down the top of the paper to hide what you have written and pass it to the next person.  He or she adds a noun (e.g. “corpse”), hides it in the same way and passes it on again.  The next person contributes a verb, then it’s “a/the” plus an adjective and finally another noun.  The paper is then unfolded and read aloud and curious “poems” are discovered to have been collectively written, such as the first which was “The exquisite/ corpse/ shall drink/ the new /wine” which gave the game its title.  Visual “Exquisite Corpses” can also be made.  Here is one from 1927 by Yves Tanguy, Joan Miro, Max Morise and Man Ray.

There are other “chain games” in the Brotchie box which have the same method of writing then concealing what you have written then passing it on, and the idea is that a sort of collective unconscious takes over.  We certainly found that a sort of synchronicity was occurring in the classroom with either weirdly “logical” collective creations or unexpectedly beautiful combinations.

Conditionals is a chain game using the folded-over technique that’s easy to play (and I have a scene in my novel where it’s played by the characters).  There are only two stages.  The first person writes a sentence beginning with a hypothetical idea starting with “if” or “when” and turns down the page.  The next person writes a sentence beginning with “then” or casts it in the future.  Here are a couple of the ones in Brotchie so you can see how it works:

“If there were no guillotine

Wasps would take off their corsets”


“If octopi wore bracelets

Ships would be towed by flies”

The game of “One Into the Other” might be one you could play at Christmas parties.  You need at least three players, more is better.  Here are Brotchie’s instructions:

“One player withdraws from the room, and chooses for himself an object (or a person, or idea, etc.).  While he is absent the rest of the players also choose an object.  When the first player returns he is told what object they have chosen.  He must now describe his own object in terms of the properties of the object chosen by the others, making the comparison more and more obvious as he proceeds, until they are able to guess its identity.  The first player should begin with a sentence such as ‘I am an (object)…’”

Here is Benjamin Péret who chose the Milky Way as his object and was asked by the others to describe it in terms of a breast:

“I am a very beautiful female breast, particularly long and serpentine.  The woman bearing it agrees to display it only on certain nights.  From its innumerable nipples spurts a luminous milk.  Few people, poets excepted, are able to appreciate its curve.”

Not all Surrealist games require a group of players but the playful aspect of group games permeates Surrealist art and writing that has been created by individual effort.  Automatic writing is the pre-eminent Surrealist game-for-one and you can find instructions at  Brotchie includes another of the many possible ways of doing automatic (or free) writing in the game Simulation, much beloved by Salvador Dali, in which you write as if in an unusual mental state.  Dali liked to simulate madness but what about trying to write as if in the grip of illness, drunkenness or zero gravity?  As an animal, or object?  Or even as another person.  After all, that’s what fiction is all about…

Making a story or poem can be turned into a game by following the Dada cut-up procedure.  Take a magazine, newspaper or book (if you can bear to destroy it!) and cut out parts of printed sentences.  Put them in a bag and shake them up.  Draw them out of the bag and construct a new piece by placing them in the new order as they emerge from the bag.  Or you could try a digital Dadaist poem like this Wikipedia Dadaist poem in which I cut-and-paste at random from Wikipedia pages on Beauty, Truth and Love:-

A Dadaist Wikipedia poem

An “ideal beauty” is an entity  people and landscapes considered beautiful  thus associated with “being of one’s hour”  localizing the processing of beauty in one brain region  computer generated, mathematical average of a series of faces  the opposite effect was observed when the alleged crime was swindling, perhaps because jurors perceived the defendant’s attractiveness as facilitating the crime

Some philosophers view the concept of truth as basic  it is still a metaphysical faith on which our faith in science rests  by adulthood we have strong implicit intuitions about “truth” that form a “folk theory” of truth  as Feynman said, “… if it disagrees with experiment, it is wrong”  when one says ‘it’s true that it’s raining,’ one asserts no more than ‘it’s raining’

the love of a mother differs from the love of a spouse differs from the love of food  romantic attraction determines what partners mates find attractive and pursue, conserving time and energy by choosing  the altruistic and the narcissistic  the “feeling” of love is superficial in comparison to one’s commitment to love via a series of loving actions over time  Mozi, by contrast, believed people in principle should care for all people equally

In such a serious world, the openness and joy of play, with its potential for new ways of thinking and new ways to solve problems and be creative, and especially in the trust that is created by playing games with other people, surely Surrealist games should be played by all.  I hope you have an imaginative, play-filled winter holiday.


Illustration credits:

The Surrealist Muse

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a muse as “a person (often a female lover) or thing regarded as the source of an artist’s inspiration”.

Here is one of the muses of Surrealism:

The image appeared on the cover of the group’s journal La Révolution Surréaliste in 1927 and the title is “L’Ecriture Automatique” (automatic writing).

This is the muse as a sexy schoolgirl, dressed in a mix of school uniform and contemporary fashion and, peculiarly, legless (although the white flesh of her knees shows enticingly through her clothing).  She is in a trance, taking dictation from the unconscious, with dark eyes and rosebud mouth.

To say that the Surrealists’ attitude to women was complex is something of an understatement.

On one hand, Surrealism was the first art movement to include women as artists in significant numbers.  For the women artists themselves, on the other hand, the ideal of Woman as childlike, close to nature or in touch with other realms, did not always help them when it came to living and working as active, creative artists.

The male Surrealists were inspired by the ideal Woman’s desirability, irrationality, and mystical rapport with dreams and the unconscious and they admired the bold freedom of the girl child in particular (as shown by the image above).  But the function of the Surrealist feminine was to give access to the surreal (or the “Marvellous”) for the male artists, functioning as a muse is supposed to do.

A photomontage  (see below) from a 1929 edition of La Révolution Surréaliste shows the Surrealists with closed eyes arranged around a painting by Magritte which contains the words “I do not see the …. hidden in the forest”.  The word ‘woman’ is replaced by a conventionalised fine art nude.

This image neatly illustrates the sexual politics of the 1920s Surrealist group.  The men are recognisable individuals (such as the leader André Breton, poet Paul Eluard, filmmaker Luis Buñuel and artist Salvador Dali); the woman is an archetype.  They are clothed; she is naked.  In fact there were no signed-up women members of the Surrealist group at this time and the position of Woman was as in this picture: a muse, inspirational ideal, and stand-in for male creativity.  She also seems to represent the male unconscious.

Then, in the 1930s, there was an influx of young women into the Surrealist group, such as Meret Oppenheim, Leonora Carrington and Lee Miller.  All three joined the group as friends or lovers of the established male artists and were some ten or fifteen years younger than them.  It was as if the sexy schoolgirl muse of automatic writing had come to life!  There was even a real schoolgirl, fourteen year old Gisèle Prassinos, who wrote poetry which the Surrealists considered with great seriousness.

So the image of the femme-enfant, or child-woman, came more and more to the fore, sometimes connected to Lewis Carroll’s Alice.  The femme-enfant was a sexually attractive young woman with childlike freedom and distain for rules, and indeed for women like Carrington, who had fled from her stifling upper class upbringing, a rebellion against family and propriety was the only possible route to becoming an artist.  But the image of naive, sexy child is a male invention, serving masculine needs (and now, of course, we are more likely to question such images as paedophilia, in particular, Hans Bellmer’s La Poupée series

Feminist writers on Surrealism are divided over the femme-enfant.  Whitney Chadwick regards it as an “albatross” around the neck of the actual women artists and says that it worked to “exclude women artists from the possibility of a profound personal identification with the theoretical side of Surrealism”.  Catriona McAra, on the other hand, stresses that curiosity (Alice in Wonderland’s greatest asset) is a wholly positive attribute in Surrealism, and that the femme-enfant seeking knowledge has been an inspiring model for women.  Likewise, Penelope Rosemont says:- “from the surrealist point of view, childhood is not a demeaning category…Far from being infantilized and helpless, the surrealist child-woman is a proud and defiant being who refuses to surrender the child’s boldness, curiosity and spirit of adventure”.

Defined as muses and depicted as children, how did women artists respond?  Whitney Chadwick remarked back in 1985 on the prevalence of self-portraits by women surrealists.  It is as if the women needed to define their own image in place of the male-authored abstractions of them.

Max Ernst and Leonora Carrington’s brief, intense and transformative relationship contains elements of the child-woman pattern.  Aged 20 to his 46, Leonora was the third younger woman in his life.  In his Preface to her collection of stories “The House of Fear” (1938) he writes of her as “the bride of the wind”:

“Who is the bride of the wind?  Can she read?  Can she write French without mistakes?  What wood does she burn to keep herself warm?  She warms herself with her intense life, her mystery, her poetry.  She has read nothing, but drunk everything.  She can’t read.  And yet the nightingale saw her, sitting on the stone of spring, reading.”

Here again is the child-woman of Surrealism.  Carrington, like the schoolgirl writing automatically without will or understanding, is invested with magic and the ability to grant access to the Marvellous.

The uncomfortable truth is that without her association with Ernst, Carrington’s stories and paintings might not have been received, but the price is to be presented as a sort of infantile idiot savant.

Carrington’s self-portrait from around the same time, “The Inn of the Dawn Horse,” contains a child’s toy: a rocking horse.

It also features a lactating hyena, which has been conjured up by the Carrington figure out of a puff of smoke (or is it ectoplasm?).  The toy rocking horse is echoed in the wild, free horse that gallops outside of the confines of the room and Carrington, with her wiry mane of hair, is sitting (manspreading?) on a chair with exaggeratedly feminine arms and feet.

She is dressed for riding the horse across open country, and not for remaining in the room of children’s toys.



image credit: “Inn of the Dawn Horse”

other images public domain, see,_n09-10,_1927.djvu for the muse of automatic writing as part of the cover of the journal

The Makeover

This month’s post is a fairy story I wrote some years ago (all rights reserved, folks!).

I hope it will amuse everyone and appeal to writers especially.  See if you can identify the different writing gurus, they are all connected with freewriting.  If you spot any resemblance to TV personalities or shows of the past, these are entirely co-incidental.

The Makeover by Kathy Hopewell

Once upon a time, a woman called Charlotte sent in her video tape.  On the film were pictures of her dressed as normal.  She wore Peter Pan collars, ugly brown glasses, and the most hideous beige skirt with a fallen hem, but secretly she had always wanted to be a novelist.
— Help me! she wailed, like a desolate child.

In the studio, the style guru is on the sofa watching Charlotte’s video.  She beams with anticipation as it comes to an end and swivels round to face the camera.
— Well, we thought we could help, she says, and we picked Charlotte out of two hundred hopefuls to come in and give herself up to us, body and soul. We started by showing her exactly what she’s been doing wrong all these years.

Cut to Charlotte herself, looking sheepish in her baggy grey underwear.  She steps into the magic room of mirrors to confront her misshapen and bulky outline.
She is prodded and spun on her heel.
— It’s such a waste!  The style guru shakes her head.  You’re simply not making the most of yourself.  And she puts an arm around her pale, wobbly waist.
This unexpected kindness brings out Charlotte’s tears.

Then it’s time to show her some new looks on shop dummies.
The first model is an American poet living in an adobe house in New Mexico.  The style guru explains that the way the skirt flows over the body, skimming the hips and giving the impression of slenderness, is achieved by completely letting go of the internal censor and writing whatever comes into your head without stopping for ten minutes.
— But do you really think I could get away with this? asks Charlotte.
— Yes! Yes! she shrieks, Just try it!  Try it and see!

The second model has confessed in the past to hiding under a baggy alcohol addiction but now gets up every morning to three clean sheets, which she covers with her hopes and fears.  After that, she knows exactly what to put on for the day.  You can see the clarity and sense of direction in the strong lines of her suit.
— But I don’t have a lot of time in the morning, says Charlotte.
— Oh for goodness sake, do stop being so negative! scolds the style guru.
Charlotte looks doubtful.

— You always wanted to be a writer, didn’t you?  Ever since you were a child?
— Yes, says Charlotte, Yes, I did.
— So what stopped you?
— Well, the truth is I didn’t think I could ever show my legs.
— That’s so common!  We hear it all the time!  But Charlotte, what’s the worst that can happen?  Are you afraid that someone will think you are too old, or too slutty?  Well you’re not and you’ll just have to trust us on this.  Do you trust us?
— OK, she says.
— Well done, Charlotte!  You won’t regret it.  Now, off to the shops!

The next day Charlotte clutches her pen, hoping she can afford what she wants.  The choice is amazing!  There are brightly-coloured chick-lit books, elegant and exclusive poetry collections and row upon row of horror novels.  She desperately tries to remember what she’s looking for, but her mind goes blank.  She is saved by the shrill descant of the style guru approaching.

— No, Charlotte, not the black!  Didn’t we say ‘no black’?  You have to give up this ‘do or die’ attitude, it’s too dark for you.  Look, before you try for a whole outfit, you need to get the underlying approach right.  Did you know that two out of three women are wearing the wrong underlying attitude?  And it shows in the way that they hold themselves.  Once you get that right, everything will look better on you.

They go to an exclusive boutique.  The walls are lined with shelves of frothy lace and shiny satin, and when Charlotte pulls one out, it is the most intricate and beautifully-designed quotation she has ever read.  By chance, she has picked up her exact cup size.  She reads: I shall not Reason and Compare: my business is to Create.
— Charlotte!  It’s just right for you, and William Blake is the best.  It’s always worth risking that extra bit more.
— Try it on!
So she does, and it fits perfectly.
— You can come here whenever you want, there’s lots more pieces you’ll like.  You must try a Chekov some day.
— But what about the owner?  Charlotte feels a bit strange just helping herself.
— A genius! So sad to lose her.  She had the best eye in the business, and she even developed her own lines.

The style guru pulls out a drawer labelled Idleness and inside is something that will cure the drooping that you get when you feel guilty about doing nothing.  It is cleverly designed so that the rounded shape of the imagination is restored, and the lace is very forgiving.
— And look, she goes on, here’s one of her really racy black numbers.  She holds up the quotation in front of Charlotte’s entranced face: Be careless, reckless!  Be a lion!  Be a pirate! Write any old way.
— Oh, I want that one too! cries Charlotte.

After this, finding the right things is easy.  Charlotte moves instinctively towards the muted greens of Virginia Woolf and prefers double-layered constructions, always in the well-tailored limited omniscient: she’s too heavy around the hips for the first person, apparently.

Finally the day arrives when Charlotte must reveal her new self.  She is sent to the hairdresser for the finishing touches.  John is quite severe and he won’t allow her to wear her long style any more.  He proposes to cut, dramatically.

— Well, all right, I’ve come this far, says Charlotte, looking for the last time at her haphazard, plentiful curls and embellishments.

He smoothes and snips and divides her scruffy tangles.  He brushes a last ink-black lock into the sleek shape of a comma.  Now, the strong lines of her cheekbones come out and it’s as if her real personality has emerged for the first time.

At last Charlotte stands in front of the covered mirror.  She feels a sort of fizz in her fingers.
— Ready? asks the woman, fidgeting with anticipation.
Charlotte shuts her eyes and thinks the word ‘eagle’, then nods.  Off comes the cloth.  Her knuckles prickle, and feathers start to appear, wetly snapping out from her hands and elbows.  Her back feels tight and uncomfortable; something is trying to grow, very quickly, from her shoulder-blades.  At last she begins to beat her large, new wings.  The style guru is speechless, which has never happened before.  With a deafening sound like falling rubble, Charlotte flies to the open window and away into the sky.

A few weeks later the style guru is on the sofa once again, armed with the remote control.
— So let’s see how Charlotte got on, after her transformation.  Has she kept to our rules or is she wearing those awful slippers again?
She shoots her remote at the screen like a gunslinger and Charlotte appears, resplendent in gorgeous caramel and vanilla plumage.
— Wonderful! See how she’s mixing and matching and creating her own look!  Then the woman leans in close to the screen.  Hold on a minute, what’s that?  I think it’s an egg!  Well, she’s done magnificently to lay that all by herself.

The egg is small but robust.  Charlotte has had to sit on it, to keep it warm, pretty much all of the time, even when she’d rather have been watching television.  Suddenly, a crack appears and a corner pokes out.
— My goodness!  It’s a paperback! exclaims the woman.
It takes quite a while to ease it out of the rigid shell, but soon the pages are dry and Charlotte beams with maternal joy.  She cradles the young book.
— I just can’t believe it! she says, See how bright and glossy it is!  And it’s all mine!

The End of an Era

School uniforms and new pencil cases are in the shops and this is the time, every year since 1989, when I look forward to meeting my new students at Bangor University’s School of Lifelong Learning.  But not this year.  Lifelong Learning closed on 31st July.  So although we’ll be teaching out all those who want to complete their qualifications via different parts of the university, there is now no dedicated centre, staff or courses for mature and part-time students at the university.

It’s such a loss.  A loss to the community.  A loss to the families of the students who might have been.  And the greatest loss of all is to the individuals themselves who might have dared, heart in mouth, to step forward and enter higher education and have their lives transformed as a result.

And what a loss to me!  The people I’ve encountered through teaching literature, women’s studies and creative writing have immeasurably enriched my life.  And Lifelong Learning has enabled me to devise and deliver modules that would have been unlikely to fit into mainstream degree courses, such as the one on freewriting that I’ve mentioned more than once in this blog.

When I heard the news that Lifelong Learning was being axed due to financial cuts I turned to my notebook and began to freewrite.  Out came a whole host of voices and stories from these past 28 years.  Once edited, they became the prose poem below: a series of first-person statements based on the real students I’ve taught but each one a mixture, a composite, of many different people.

I hope that these voices celebrate and commemorate the great achievements (and heartaches) of the last three decades of the “extra mural” project at Bangor University and show in some measure what has been lost by allowing money to be the ultimate determinant of the value of education.


Cost Effective Lifelong Learning by Kathy Hopewell

I run a local charity.  Before going back to study part time, my cancer diagnosis had stripped everything from me: marriage, work, hope, confidence.  The course was a lifeline, literally.

I am a schoolteacher and my evening classes at the uni are the only times anyone asks me what I think.

I’m agoraphobic but once I’d registered, my desire to learn about psychology was greater than my fear of going outside.  Now I’m thinking of going into social work.

At work, I was the one who stayed late to lock up and the one who cleared up spillages.  After I got my degree, things changed.  Now I do the orders, now I have a section under me.  Now I have enough to put some money by.

I’m disabled and having the classes spread out was the only way I could have got through a whole degree. 

I was an old-fashioned salesman with a briefcase and a business card.  My degree was the best thing I could have done because when the company went under, I didn’t, and now I’m self-employed.

I never used to speak to anyone after my wife died.  Now I get together with my classmates to talk about the assignments.  I suggested they came to my house next time.  The doctor’s taken me off the anti-depressants now.

I’ve worked in retail all my life.  Getting to grips with social theory was the first time I’d used my brain in years.  I reckon the two things together will really give me an edge: it’s like seeing the world with completely new eyes.

Before I came on the course I honestly didn’t know that I felt so strongly about social justice.  Now I’m running a drop-in centre and it’s all paid for by an application that I put together.

I’m in recovery but in class, people see something more interesting in me than my addiction.  In fact, I don’t even think about myself much anymore, instead I think about the next time I can get into the library and what I’ll say during the session next week.

Truth Versus Fiction: the 1938 Surrealist Exhibition in Paris

My novel about the Surrealists, Swimming with Tigers, is loosely based on real people and events, but having the latitude to adapt, recombine and invent elements and individuals within the movement made it possible for me to recreate key moments so that they reflect the guiding themes of my book.

One of the things I wanted to do was to explore what Surrealism meant for women: whether it provided a rare opportunity in history for women artists to work as equals in collaboration with men, or whether the movement was male-dominated in its membership and in the content of the artworks.

A significant scene that occurs fairly on in my book brings all these questions to the fore.

The scene depicts the International Surrealist Exhibition at the Galerie des Beaux-Arts in Paris, 1938.  This exhibition was a landmark in art history because, instead of following the traditional white walls format, it used the whole environment of the gallery as a canvas and represents an important stage in the early development of installation art.

The exhibition consisted of three main arenas, each designed to disorientate the viewer.  The first was outside, in the courtyard, where Salvador Dali’s Rainy Taxi (now kept permanently at the Dali museum in Figueres) was situated.  It is a real black taxi with an interior water-system, and contains life-sized models: the driver has a shark’s head and the woman passenger in the back is surrounded by lettuce and has live snails crawling on her.  In my novel I have added live frogs, which Dali did indeed plan to include, and a pile of eggy liquid in the woman’s lap to anticipate the literally sickening conclusion to the scene.

The second environment of the exhibition was a pitch-dark “street” (indoors), lined with female shop mannequins which had been dressed with strange objects and fabrics by individual Surrealist artists such as Man Ray, Yves Tanguy and André Masson (of the sixteen mannequins displayed, only one was dressed by a woman, Sonia Mossè).  Spectators walked along this dubious parade of provocative “women” scanning each one with the hand-held torches that were provided as the only light source.

The street of mannequins led into the third area, a large grotto containing four large beds, and the similarity to a visit to a brothel was intentional.  In this last room, Surrealist artworks were displayed under a ceiling (designed by Marcel Duchamp) of 1,200 low-hung coal sacks.  The floor was covered in dead leaves and there was also a brazier and a pool of water.  A recording of laughter increased the immersive, unsettling effect of the environment.  On the first night a Surrealist dance was performed by Hélène Vanel, who tore her clothes, wrestled on the beds with a cockerel, and ended by wallowing in the pool.

I kept all these details in my fictional account (although I made up some mannequins of my own).  The exhibition is described from the perspective of Penelope, an artist and member of the group whose work is included but who has had no involvement in putting the exhibition together.  She wanders through the different spaces with growing disquiet and is sexually assaulted next to the parade of women mannequins on offer to the spectators.  She then discovers that her own Surrealist object has been exhibited under a title that has been given to it by another, male, artist.

The experience of having one’s work appropriated is drawn from the life of Meret Oppenheim, whose teacup, saucer and teaspoon covered with fur, one of the most famous and recognisable icons of Surrealism, was renamed by André Breton, the leader of the movement.

Oppenheim’s title for her arresting creation was simply “Object”.  In a transgressive act, she turned a domestic item into a fetishistic object, challenging restrictive definitions of femininity.  However, when it was exhibited Breton gave it the title Le Déjeuner en Fourrure (Luncheon in Fur) in a deliberate allusion to Edouard Manet’s painting of 1863 Le Déjeuner sur l’herbe (Luncheon on the Grass).  In Manet’s well-known painting, set in the countryside, a naked woman is surrounded by fully-clothed men in a coded reference to prostitution in the Bois de Boulogne just outside Paris, and as part of a tradition in fine art painting in which women’s bodies are shown as sexually available and allied to nature.

In my version, the fur cup has been renamed “From One Hand to Another”: a title meant to reflect the exchange of women as objects between men, and the extension of this to the works of women artists.  It would be giving away too much to describe what impact this experience has on my fictional woman artist, Penelope, but suffice it to say that she does not tolerate this level of control for long.

Surrealist exhibitions such as this one in 1938 gave many women (often very young, such as Leonora Carrington who was only 21) the chance to make and exhibit work alongside men.  Opportunities for women artists were certainly greater than in any previous (and several subsequent) art movements but the sexual politics of the art was often retrograde and the characteristic tactics of shock and outrage frequently drew on the definition of woman as sexualised object rather than artistic equal.

In my novel, I’ve tried to recreate the liberation and excitement that the women artists might have felt at being part of a movement that actively included them, but also their frustration with the regressive sexism that restricted and defined their place.

Publish or Perish?

When I began writing ten years ago I thought that there was some natural process by which writing became published: you did it and then it would appear in print, rather like going through with a pregnancy and ending up with a baby.  Now I know that there are as many ways of being a writer as there are writers, and the spectrum of publication stretches across vast areas of difference from having just a few readers to being a commercial bestseller.  In between are writers’ groups, small presses, self and/or e-publication, blogs, subscription arrangements and now crowd-funding

Two particular writers on opposite ends of the spectrum of publication have been occupying my thoughts recently.

The first is my father-in-law Robert Hopewell who died at 91 years old just a couple of weeks ago.  I knew that he wrote poems as part of his lifelong practice of Zen meditation, mindfulness, yoga and tai chi, and that they were connected to his work as a visual artist and wood carver.  As far as I know he never attempted to publish or even share his writings very widely.  He had occasionally showed a few poems to me but I couldn’t really receive them, being blinkered by the more literary, canonical poetry I taught in university classes.  But after his death I had the chance to see all the writings together, copied into large sketch books, often decorated with abstract designs, and the sum of the poems in combination with his long life and steadfast practice of Buddhist detachment has become clear.

His poems are direct, unsophisticated, and unencumbered by the need to impress.  He writes broadly in the tradition of Japanese haiku in short poems that are acts of observing and exercises in clarity of mind.  The poems are as concerned with releasing experience as with capturing it.

For instance, here is a piece called “Practice Death Poem”:

Waking to the familiar

What a strange and wonderful thing

Dying to the familiar

What an adventure

One of the most significant aspects of the poems is the way in which the writer is completely unconcerned with the impression he makes: self-judgement has been more or less completely jettisoned and there is absolutely nothing to prove.  And the real power of these poems is that there is no audience imagined, expected or addressed.  The complete absence of the idea of publication has created the perfect conditions for significant statement: the value of this work is a result of its utter privacy.

But what a paradox!  To never seek publication might guarantee the worth of a body of work but if it is never read, then what is the purpose of all that effort?  Language is communication.  You might argue that the point of private writing is self-expression but without another to hear or read the work, is the self really expressed at all?

This question takes me back to one of my great heroes, Emily Dickinson.  Her poetry is now regarded as some of the best ever written but her work was not published in her lifetime and she made only a few abortive attempts to submit her work to the conventional women’s magazines of her day in mid-nineteenth century New England.   Instead she included her poems in correspondence to friends and arranged her own method of production by sewing together collections of her poetry and storing them in a desk.  Her poems were so advanced, complex, compressed and unconventional that it’s possible she preferred to keep them semi-private rather than to compromise and instead publish the sort of sentimental, regularly-rhymed verse that many women of her genteel social background did.  Again, there is this intensification, and the authenticity that comes from turning away from the marketplace (I am aware of the theoretical naivety of these statements but I cannot always be a postmodernist!).

One of Dickinson’s most famous poems compares the publishing industry to slavery, stating that “publication is the auction of the mind of man”, but her work did eventually emerge into the light.  The extent of her achievement was discovered after her death, fought over, published (sometimes in bowdlerized editions) and every generation since has found meaning in her work.  Feminist poets and scholars in particular have read her with increasing understanding and admiration and she has inspired many poets to take up the challenge of her forensic, daring poetics.  Without widespread publication and the dissemination of her extraordinary work this would not have been possible, but for Dickinson herself, wasn’t it better to remain unpublished in her lifetime, in the same way that my father-in-law’s poems gained their force from silence and unselfconsciousness?  This goes against the grain of our success-oriented society and the gospel of celebrity.

The other writer I have been thinking about is most assuredly a success and has sold over a million books worldwide: this is Jessie Burton, whose novel The Miniaturist became a runaway bestseller in 2013.  By chance I came across her tremendously interesting blog and was shocked to read about the breakdown she suffered after the enormous success of her book.  I’m very happy to say that she has now recovered and her second novel, The Muse, is doing well.  It’s plain that the trauma following the strain of sudden celebrity shook her to the core and she was severely afraid of never being able to write again.

To be writing, as Burton is now, for an established readership with specific expectations and a lot of money riding on it is the complete opposite of the other writers I’ve been describing and it poses the question of what writing is really for.  I believe that each writer must decide what their definition of success really is.  I think for Robert it was the direct expression of the truth as he saw it without the false distortions of the ego getting in the way, and for Dickinson it was about accurately witnessing the glory and terror of existence.  Jessie Burton speaks, in a veiled way, about her next book being braver in content and it seems as though she has taken ownership of her position as a public writer and is intent upon using it well.  For me, then, as I prepare to submit my novel to agents and publishers once again, I am aware that some sorts of commercial success are not always a wholly good thing, and that literary quality and meaningfulness is not solely measurable by reader numbers.

I’ll let Robert have the last word (about words!):

This is a freewritten blog…

This is a freewritten blog, the first time I’ve tried it and it’s not going to be easy to be thinking in public and actually put down my genuine thoughts as they occur because that’s what freewriting is and there’ll be a fight going on here, even fiercer than usual between my hand moving the pen and not allowing my mind to edit as I write with the need to say useful, coherent, appropriate things.

It’s 30 years since Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones and the long online interview in LA was so good! [“Natalie Goldberg with Steven Reigns” at]  She even confesses to always having been in competition with the author of Bones meaning she never hit such heights again but that might just be sales because she must know that Wild Mind and Thunder and Lightning and now True Secret are every bit as good if not better than Bones.

writing-down-the-bonesI’ve been doing this [freewriting] for 10 years at least but to go into a classroom and explain it and why people should do it (if they want to write) is still very hard.  I can’t say I do freewriting properly anymore or even completely regularly but I can’t go for many days without it.  And now I’ve lost my track because just now the phone rang…it was out of area so I didn’t answer.  If it’s anyone who really wants me, or exists (vs a computer) they’ll leave me a message.

So what to say about Natalie and Bones?  Without it, no writing.  Absolutely. It was the decider, the guide, the best friend I had when it all seemed pointless.  Natalie was the only person who ever fully convinced me that writing is worthwhile for its own sake and surely the relaxation, the dropping of all that tension around being good, and competing and how to succeed, the letting go of that, has meant I could come to write the stuff that’s turned into our performances.  Such a good gig on Sunday! [Hopewell Ink, see “About” page] Everyone there was linked to me speaking we were all in the same moment and D’s new soundtrack was so good, it was motoring on, giving a sort of drive to the whole thing at the end and the coffee helped too.

So Natalie feels like to me, and presumably lots and lots of others as the one giving permission (Who Gave You Permission? is a chapter in Wild Mind, I think) and that’s who I want to be in the classroom on Saturday.  And will they be smiling by the end?  That’s the test.  The room warms up and people connect and you can feel the energy change.  That’s what happened before and it did my writing good and I wrote all the exercises and played the games too.  I have to get the paper slips ready and using scissors will make this RSI in my hand worse.  I resent it when it’s cooking or cleaning but nothing will stop me writing I’ll take ibuprofen if necessary.

natalie_goldbergNatalie is older and she’s had cancer but of course she’s written about it and that’s how she’ll have coped.  How would I manage if I couldn’t write?  What if I was in prison?  But what good does it do?  Natalie says you’re not creating any more suffering no she says everything is, she she I am stuck now which is odd because it’s more usually at the beginning and now I’m thinking about Women’s Studies and the conference which is it? where they need a speaker because someone’s dropped out.

The Zen stuff is very hard to convey from Natalie’s book, where it makes complete sense, to students.  What does Monkey Mind mean?  It’s what I’m trying to get past: all that stuff about the gig and the uni e-mails.  And what’s underneath?  Me, a woman in navy joggers because I’m hoping I’ll do some yoga later (unlikely but there’s a chance) and sitting here in Bethesda at my desk and so relieved, so relieved that I don’t have to drive to the hospital tonight.

So a blog abut Natalie and the 30 years since Bones.  Well, it could be about her core message: observe the mind, or it could be just me, taking it to some new people again this weekend and hoping it does change their lives for the better, as education can but only as writing does on this deep and dangerous level.  And now that sounds bad so I’ll have to edit it out but that would be cheating.

I used to despise D’s friend for not editing and think I knew better.  I wasn’t a writer then.   Now I know that it’s two halves of the same thing.  The freewritten and the edited are the two halves of a whole piece of writing.  And the freer the freewrite (and the writer who writes it) the stronger the final piece will be.  That’s a simple message, from Natalie, through me, to everyone listening.

Training to Write

Imagine what it’s like to be an Olympic athlete about to compete.  Your name is called.  You raise your arm, or fit the pedal straps to your feet, or stand at the edge of the diving board, or crouch in readiness on the track.  Then it begins.  Everything is a blur of no-time time and swift unconscious judgements and calculations.  There is the familiarity of having performed these movements countless times before, but also the awareness that you are doing it for the first time under these exact conditions, here and now.  And then it’s over.  Your lungs are heaving and when the results appear, tears start spilling out of your eyes.  The thought of being on the podium is unreal and bizarre.  Then a microphone is jabbed at you and the interviewer asks: how did you do it?

Training.  I trained really hard for this, you say.  Then the interviewer moves on because the media isn’t really interested in the hours and hours of repetitions and diet charts and weigh-ins.  But you know that without the days and weeks and months of practice, you wouldn’t be here in the echoing velodrome, the sweat-wet badminton court or on the royal blue Astroturf in Rio, 2016.

800px-Women's_Heptathlon_Victory_CeremonyAn athlete’s training is all for one moment of opportunity: an Olympic competition.  And although I know that writing isn’t competitive in the same way, it does strike me that writers need to be on top form when the opportunity of a good idea, and the time to explore it, occurs.  So while watching the games, I’ve been thinking about the similarities between sportspeople training to compete, and writers using freewriting to practice their art.  I think that freewriting is a sort of training and very roughly equivalent to those hours in the gym, in the pool and on the track, that the top athletes put in.

And this is why: in freewriting you are training your mind to translate ideas as directly as possible onto the page or screen.  “First thoughts” are what Natalie Goldberg calls original, unique-to-you, strong creative ideas.  The aim is to seize these ideas without hesitating or watering them down or letting an internal editor tell you they’re rubbish, and who are you anyway to think you can write?  Freewriting trains you to grasp and record all of your mind’s output (good and bad) and put it down on paper so you can work with it later.  It’s like strengthening a mental muscle by using it repeatedly.   You train yourself to write in a fluent way and at the same time, to follow the guidelines of being as specific and concrete as possible and diving into potentially dark or controversial material if it comes up.  With this training, you can step up when and if the opportunity comes to write the big scene, or the definitive poem.  The idea can get onto the page complete.  Without thinking, you can do the equivalent of a triple salto and still be ready for the big finish.

Girl_playing_white_grand_piano_-_EXPO_2015_Milan_(2015-07-13_10.44.44_by_Luca_Nebuloni)And why shouldn’t writers practice?  Artists of all kinds do exercises to improve skill.  The musician practices scales; the painter has a sketchbook.  So if a writer says to me that they are worried that freewriting will make their work sloppy or that it’s a waste of time, I’m going to point out that it was the hours of training that made it possible for Max Whitlock to win two gold medals in one day.

Whatever public recognition may or may not later come our way, the writer is her own first judge and medal-awarding committee: it’s at the desk or the screen where we know if our wonderful idea has made it out of our head and onto the page.  If we are freewriters I think the chances of producing a winning performance are that much higher.  And in your press interview, when they ask how you did it, you can say it was all down to those hours of training!


Un-free writing, and possession

Right now, like my own students, I’m revising my work.

On April 8th, a year after starting, I completed the first draft of my new novel The Dead Have Time to Listen.  It was an intense last few weeks in which the writing took over my waking and sleeping life and I wrote more and more words every day.  The feeling at the end of writing a novel is like nothing else: a state of possession in which the people and events of the story seem as real, if not more so, than the events of real life.  Now I am the Red-peneditor of my own work: niggling away at every clunky word, misplaced comma and dodgy reference, and trying to root out every glitch and continuity error.  As a teacher I am used to marking (I like it!) but you can probably tell which part of the writing process I prefer!

Revision is a particularly extreme example of un-free writing and it’s led me to reflect by contrast on the qualities of that total immersion in character at the conclusion of writing a novel.  This spontaneous outpouring (sometimes I couldn’t even stop when I tried!) is surely an example of very free writing and I would also liken it to a sort of trance, or possession by spirits, in which the writer is taken over by another identity.  (This is why I can’t answer the phone when I’m working: I’m really not at home!)

Not co-incidentally, my novel is narrated by a dead spirit and also contains scenes of possession in which the narrator provides the highly unusual perspective of being the spirit doing the possessing.

Crevel and TzaraThis also reminds me that the Surrealists were really spiritualists at the very beginning (they called it “the period of sleeping fits”).  In the early 1920s, when Breton was formulating the tenets of the movement, it was the fashion for members of the group to fall into trances and speak or write messages from occult sources. Breton never believed these were communications from the dead but he did accept that they were from the unconscious. Unfortunately, the rivalry that Breton inspired in his followers led to more and more extreme performances of trance and hypnotism.  Robert Desnos and René Crevel competed to fall into ever-deeper states of alienation until Crevel (on the right in the picture) led a mass suicide attempt and Breton called a halt to the whole thing.

Keith Johnstone’s book Impro (on techniques of improvisation for drama students) has been a really important source for my novel and in it he describes the trances of voodoo ceremonies and the equivalent effects of actors being possessed by masks.  He talks about the masks as being inhabited by actual beings who take over their wearer and how the actors have no recollection of the things they have done or the time they have spent under the influence of the mask.

Spanish masksSpooky stuff, but actually sort of familiar to me from that last push on the novel when I would emerge, thousands of words and hours later, with the sensation of not having lived as myself at all.  If I can create the same suspension of self in my readers, then the novel will really have succeeded!

Overall, it seems to be the week for all things dead.  My partner and I perform as Hopewell Ink (see the About page for a recording) and we have been developing a new piece called Electronic Voice Phenomenon.  If you don’t know about EVP it’s, again, linked to the spiritualist tradition and the theory is that the voices of the dead can sometimes be heard in electronic white noise.  The practice of listening for spirit voices in electronic technology goes right back to the earliest gramophone records.

Maori maskFor Hopewell Ink’s attempt to hear the dead speak, I’ve cheated a bit and written some scripts of what they might be saying if we could hear them.  If by chance you can come to our performance at 6.30 on May 22nd in the Crosville Club in Bangor (North Wales), you’ll be able to catch snatches of their reminiscences.  During the performance I’ll do my best to allow these spirits to take over so that, just like the characters in my novel, they can push aside my ordinary, “real” self for a short time at least.


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